Sunday, May 16, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part II)

"These movies, known as road-show pictures, were long, large and lavish: They opened initially in a limited number of huge movie houses, sometimes with two or three thousand seats, in engagements that offered reserved-seat tickets at significantly higher prices than the national average.... Handled wrong, these movies could turn into Cleopatra or Mutiny on the Bounty. Done right, they were The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, money machines that could often play theatrically for more than two years before exhausting their audience."

Such was a particular type of motion picture of 1950s and early-60s Old Hollywood: "road-show" movies, now having morphed into the "blockbusters" of today. Some things have changed: Avatar played in theaters for barely three months before coming to DVD; and it's science-fiction and fantasy, rather than historical epics and musicals, that are the genres of choice. Yet as Mark Harris indicates in Pictures at a Revolution -- his study of the Best Picture nominees of 1967 -- the fundamental building-blocks for these kinds of films remains the same. Last time we looked at Harris's analysis of Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that barely got made and was expected to do nothing, which became a revolutionary hit; this time we follow the author's glance toward "the only movie of the five that that had been fueled by a studio's bottom-line goal to manufacture an immense popular hit, and the only one that flopped."

Doctor Dolittle

What to say about a movie that has garnered less acclaim that an Eddie Murphy remake? I can't remember if I've even seen the original Dolittle, but it doesn't sound like I'm missing much. The culture out of which the movie was made, however, is a fascinating place to visit:
  • Harris notes that, between 1964 and 1965, "Hollywood did not react well" to the astounding box-office receipts by a quartet of films, three of which were musicals: Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. (The fourth was a James Bond flick, Goldfinger.) "Historically," he writes, "the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic."
  • I love the above quote in how it shows just how little has changed. A few years ago, when March of the Penguins was a surprise hit, you could practically hear studio heads barking that all movies must now include "some goddamn penguins!" Today it's 3-D that's all the rage. And when a 3-D film finally performs below expectations (nothing "flops" anymore), tomorrow it'll be something else.
  • By the mid-1960s, once-popular biblical epics were now alarmingly passe. Bad news, at the time, for John Huston (slogging through The Bible) and George Stevens (dithering on The Greatest Story Ever Told). But still encouraging on the whole for Hollywood, "which had always known how to produce musicals and would now simply make them bigger, longer, and more frequently."
  • Musicals, Harris writes, were the epitome of Old Hollywood because it could use the same lots, costumes and music departments (with "seventy-five piece orchestras") that it always had. He adds that if audiences wanted more musicals, "the studios would just build more soundstages, buy the rights to every Broadway show.... and, once that well ran dry, invent musical versions of old films from their own libraries." Substitute "comic books" and you have a good description of the Hollywood of today.
  • Doctor Dolittle was based on a series of popular Hugh Lofting books. Although it would have seemed an ideal fit for Disney, the studio "specialized in public domain properties--Snow White, Sleeping Beauty--that it didn't have to pay for." (I never knew this.) Finally, it was 20th Century Fox that purchased the rights.
  • Another problem was the menagerie of animals that would be necessary for the movie. Harris doesn't quote W.C. Fields' famous axiom, "Never work with animals or children," but it fits.
  • Harris gets a lot of comic mileage out of all the fiascos caused by our furry and feathered friends during production. During filming of a scene involving a squirrel that wouldn't sit still, a tiny drop of alcohol was given to calm it. The squirrel responded by falling off its ledge. Another chapter begins hilariously bluntly: "The giraffe stepped on its cock."
  • The author also shows us an untamable wildebeest who went by the name Rex Harrison. "(He) could be explosive, impatient, capricious, and vain, but also charming, apologetic, and compliant, sometimes within the same conversation or at different points during the same stiff drink." Put it this way: when Richard Burton thinks you have an alcohol problem, you know you're in trouble.
  • Rex Harrison was at the height of his career following his Best Actor win for My Fair Lady and made incessant demands all during production of Dolittle. He repeatedly tried to eliminate one particular song he hated: "Talk to the Animals." At one point Harrison was even fired, to be replaced by Christopher Plummer (fresh off The Sound of Music), but eventually was rehired again.
  • Although Harris did a notable job keeping Warren Beatty's personal life out of the book, he seems weirdly fixated on disparaging Harrison's wife, Rachel Roberts, who was every bit the imbiber that her husband was, and is repeatedly described in moments where she "barks like a dog."
  • Admittedly, this does lead to one of the funnier (if cringe-inducing) passages in Pictures: when Harrison and Roberts mortify a restaurant crowd of Old Hollywood types, he singing a raunchy ditty and she doing panty-less handstands.
  • Sidney Poitier was offered the sidekick role of Bumpo, a rather offensively stereotypical African comic-relief character that he nonetheless seriously considered (in order to shed his noble image). Harrison wanted Poitier badly. But the studio ended up eliminating the character completely, which was probably for the best.
  • Doctor Dolittle wrapped a nightmarish shoot, went enormously over-budget, and opened to poor reviews. Harris: "The reviews weren't scathing, but their yawning tone and the impression they conveyed of dullness and overkill was almost worse." (To put it in more recognizable terms, the Tomatometer was not fresh.)
  • Ah, but there were still the Oscars, and Fox's campaign was a model of proto-Miramax savvy, offering free voter screenings that included dinner and champagne.
  • Dolittle scored nine Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture that many thought should have gone to Richard Brooks's acclaimed adaptation of In Cold Blood. A chorus of outrage greeted the news.
  • In the end, the film won two awards: Best Visual Effects, and Best Song. That song was "Talk to the Animals," by Leslie Bricusse, which Rex Harrison had loathed.
  • A 150-minute "children's film," Doctor Dolittle's box-office failure would prove to be a harbinger for the (temporary) death of the Hollywood musical. Road-show movies would continue, and musicals would eventually return, but the two have scarcely connected since.
Next: Mike Nichols goes Hollywood, what constituted a "leading man" got a unexpected new face, and the counterculture embraces a film that couldn't have cared less about it....


The Film Doctor said...

Nice work. In its excessive, grotesque, and sickly fashion, the Dr. Dolittle shoot contrasts nicely with the making of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate that same year. I especially like your mention of comic books as equivalent to musicals in the way Hollywood fixates on one source of inspiration and milks it dry. I did once see Dr. Dolittle, but I remember next to nothing--just one translucent last shot inside of a large snail.

Anonymous said...

And the Pushme-Pullyu.

The memorable bits could be boiled down to a 3-minute YouTube video.